Ferdinand Hiller was born in Frankfurt in 1811 and died in Cologne in 1885, having enjoyed a busy and diverse career as a pianist, composer and teacher.
Hiller’s standing in 19th century German musical culture should not be underestimated, as can be seen in his extensive exchange of letters with fellow artists, and the positions he held as conductor and musical director. His first and arguably most significant piano teacher was Alois Schmitt in Frankfurt, whose finger exercises continue to be used even today. Aged 14, Hiller went to study with Johann Nepomuk Hummel in Weimar for a period of two years. Hiller’s pianism quickly attracted the attention of his contemporaries, amongst them Mendelssohn and Schumann.
In the 1843–4 season he succeeded Mendelssohn as the conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. His friendship with Robert Schumann resulted in the latter dedicating his Piano Concerto Op. 54 to him.
In 1847 Hiller moved on to Düsseldorf before settling in Cologne in 1850 where he shaped the musical life of the city, and the entire region. As a teacher and conductor Hiller championed the music of Max Bruch and Johannes Brahms, but the relationship with some contemporaries was not free of disagreements. His opposition to the so-called New German School of composition represented by Wagner and Liszt, and his increasingly conservative way of writing led to some rather traditional sounding later works.
Hiller’s most dynamic concert writing can be found in his earlier works, whereas the music best suited to teaching dates from the 1860s onwards, when he began to write music for learners, some of which produced for, or dedicated to, his own children. At a time when many of the great pianists lead a cosmopolitan life by travelling throughout Europe it is not surprising that music written in different national styles (for instance Hiller’s ‘Irish Song’ or his ‘Italian Song’) became increasingly popular.
Amongst Hiller’s most enduring piano works are the 24 Etudes Op. 15, two sets of Rhythmic Studies Opp. 52 and 56, his virtuoso Piano Concerto in F sharp minor Op. 69 and the encore piece Zur Gitarre Op. 97.